There are lots of adventure tour operators and travel agents on Phuket, all offering a variety of day and overnight trips. Phang Nga Bay is popular for adventure travel.
Just over an hour from the northernmost tip of Phuket, in the province of Phang Nga, the coastal town of Khao Lak was the area hardest hit by the 2004 tsunami. Now almost entirely rebuilt, today it's a burgeoning eco-tourism destination with some magnificent resorts, some new, and some wholly rebuilt. Popular with the Euro and Scandinavian crowds, today it attracts nature lovers who come to go bird-watching and soak in its waterfalls. It's an ideal jumping-off point for visits to pristine dive spots around the Ko Similan and Ko Surin National Marine Park (the best months to visit are Dec-May; the park is closed May-Oct).
Comprising nine islands, the Similan Islands are rated in the top-10 best dive sites in the world for the stunning arrays of unspoiled corals, sea fans, and sponges, as well as angelfish, parrotfish, manta rays, and sometimes white-tipped sharks. Numerous local dive operators offer short (approx. 3 hr. by speedboat) or long trips to these regions from Thap Lamu Pier, 8km (5 miles) south of Khao Lak. For bungalow or camping accommodations on the islands, contact Similan National Park (local office tel. 07659-5045). A similar style of basic accommodations is also available in Ko Surin National Park (tel. 07647-2145), which comprises five islands with some of the best shallow water corals. Whale sharks are known to frequent these waters, which, in the past, were once the exclusive domain of Phuket's indigenous people, the Sea Gypsies.
Boats leave from Khuraburi Pier, north of Khao Lak, with a journey time of 4 hours to the islands. From here, fans of marine life can take a day trip to isolated Ko Phra Thong to visit the island's conservation center. Manned (only in dry season) by an international team of experts and volunteers, it surveys and protects rare turtles and the region's disappearing, yet ecologically vital, mangroves. Visit www.naucrates.org for info.
Another stellar outfit, the Ecotourism Training Center (ETC), is a nonprofit organization set up by a dynamic American, Reid Ridgway, to provide long-term career training to tsunami-affected youth. Established in 2005, the Khao Lak program trains local Thais in sustainable community tourism and diving skills to PADI Dive Master and Instructor level. It now offers trips to interested divers and visitors. For more information, visit www.etcth.org.
Other local attractions include miles of peaceful white-sand beaches, elephant trekking, temple tours, white-water rafting, and jungle treks. Visit Khao Lak Land Discovery (21/5 Moo 7, Petchkasem Rd., Khao Lak; tel. 07648-5411) for information about such activities.
Where to Stay -- Many visitors who are tired of Phuket's high prices and full-on party vibe head up here for long or short breaks, and the range of accommodations is constantly growing.
There are plenty of midrange options in Khao Lak. Apart from the recommendation listed, it's worth considering Palm Galleria Resort (27/102 Moo 2, Kukkak, Khao Lak, Phang Nga 82190; tel. 07642-7000; www.khaolakpalmgalleria.com) or Apsaras Beach Resort & Spa (45 Moo 2, Kukkak, Khao Lak, Phang Nga 82190; tel. 07658-4444; www.apsarasresort.com), both on scenic Pakarang Beach, about 15km (9 1/3 miles) north of Khao Lak.
On the budget end, there are beachside jungle bungalows at Similana Resort (23/7 Moo 1, Kukkak, Khao Lak, Phang Nga 82190; tel. 07642-0166), with rooms starting at 1,500B. Khao Lak Banana (Soi Bang La On; tel. 07648-5889; www.khaolak.phang-nga.org) is another good deal, with fan rooms at 700B and rooms with A/C running 1,000B; a pool and Wi-Fi are bonus features.
Where to Dine -- In addition to the many hotel restaurants on hand, there are countless dining venues in town, though several places close during the low season (May-Oct). Among the best, try Joe's Steak House (56 Moo 5, Bang Niang, Khao Lak; tel. 0878-936833), which is open for dinner only (except Mon) -- reservations are highly recommended. For Thai food, Jai Restaurant (Main Rd.; tel. 07648-5390) is excellent and just two doors down from Khao Lak's most happening late-night live music bar, Happy Snapper (Main Rd., 5/2 Moo 7, Khao Lak; tel. 07648-5500; www.happysnapperbar.com). O'Connor's Irish Pub (no phone) is a few steps away, offering Thai cooking classes and serving great Guinness with home-cooked European meals.
Midway to Krabi and 1 hour's boat ride from Phuket's Bang Rong Pier (north of Boat Lagoon, turn east at the Heroines' Monument), the twin islands of Ko Yao Yai and Ko Yao Noi ("Big Long Island" and "Little Long Island") are where nature lovers head to enjoy some scenery and relax. A world apart from the clamor of Ko Phi Phi, Phang Nga Bay's two largest islands are not as yet very touristy and are great for cruising by motorbike or mountain bike (available for rent on both islands at around 200B/100B per day).
A couple of reasons these islands never became as popular as Ko Phi Phi is that most beaches are rather stony and the sea is not as clear as around nearby islands, so they are not great for swimming. The nearest things to civilization on Ko Yao Noi are the 7-Eleven store and ATM, and there's still not a traffic light to be seen. Yet this is the more developed of the two islands, with a road running all the way around it and a rapidly growing choice of resorts (mostly on the east coast). Ko Yao Yai, by contrast, has just a few roads and a handful of places to stay.
More active travelers can go kayaking, bird-watching, or head off to snorkel and explore nearby uninhabited islands by longtail; any resort can make arrangements. In addition, there's fishing, jungle walks, or the exhaustive sport of hammock swinging: It all makes for a perfect island escape.
Ferries to both islands leave Bang Rong Pier approximately hourly throughout the day, and cost 120B. Call ahead to your accommodations to arrange transport from the pier.
Where to Stay -- Some resorts on Ko Yao Noi open all year, while others close during the rainy season (May-Sept). There's such a range of choice (with several new places set to open in 2010) that you might pay anywhere between 1,000B and 400,000B for a room (yes, that's for 1 night). For a laid-back budget bungalow resort, try Sabai Corner (tel. 07659-7497; www.sabaicornerbungalows.com), which has a handful of bungalows from 1,000B; each has a different design but all have spacious balconies and hammocks. The restaurant here serves up tasty Thai and Italian dishes. A good midrange choice is Lom'Lae Resort (tel. 07659-7486; www.lomlae.com), situated on a tranquil beach at the south end of the island, with rooms from 2,000B (closed May-Sept); it also has a dive shop. Right next door (though vegetation is so dense that guests probably never know) is the tiny, upmarket Koyao Bay Pavilions (tel. 07659-7441; www.koyaobay.com), where the three gorgeous villas go for around 10,000B. You'll find similar prices and facilities at Ko Yao Island Resort (tel. 07659-7474; www.koyao.com), about halfway down the east coast in a former coconut plantation. This place has 15 thatched and well-spaced villas with indoor and outdoor bathrooms.
If you need a break from your chosen resort on Ko Yao Noi, head on down to Pyramid Bar & Restaurant (tel. 081415-5274) at the south end of the east coast, where they serve decent Thai food and good burgers. They also have a pool table and occasional live music.
On Ko Yao Yai, the Yao Yai Island Resort (tel. 081968-4641; www.yaoyairesort.com) has bungalows from 1,100B, and the similarly priced Heimat Gardens Guesthouse (tel. 085794-7428; www.heimatgardens.com) is equally close to the beach and offers friendly service.
Racha Islands & Phang Nga Bay
From Chalong Bay at the south end of Phuket, there's a hulking daily ferry service to the idyllic islet of Ko Racha (aka Ko Raya or Ko Raja), a delightful island getaway with a perfect white-sand beach. It's hugely popular with day-trippers in the dry season. Sybarites in search of seclusion can also splash out at their own pool villa at The Racha (tel. 07635-5455; www.theracha.com), a magnificent contemporary-styled luxury hotel that cascades down the hill to the cerulean sea. (The hotel offers speedboat transfers to its guests, subject to the weather.) You'll need deep pockets for their premium Lighthouse suite, which costs 65,000B, but if that seems a bit steep, you can get deluxe villa rates online for 9,200B.
Phang Nga Bay, with its towering karst limestone spires, is a very popular day trip by boat -- some might say too popular, with hordes of tour groups descending on its tiny beaches. A more peaceful trip around the bay by sea kayak is possibly a better bet. Ko Phi Phi is another oversold day trip for snorkeling, or more commonly an overnight stay from Phuket.